Go into any music store and ask for a Talking Heads album. Dollars to donuts the one the cashier or stock clerk brings back will be 1980’s ‘Remain in Light.’ It’s understandable that this record has become so ubiquitous: it’s certainly the band’s most expansive sounding, thanks to a greater influence by producer Brian Eno; it features arguably one of the most iconic songs of the ’80’s, “Once in a Lifetime;” and it served as an introduction for many people into the realm of world music, albeit not as much as Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ would six years later. Some might even go so far as to characterize ‘Remain in Light’ as one of the greatest albums ever made.
Personally, I could take it or leave it.
Oh, there was certainly a time when I, like everyone else, was held hopelessly under ‘Remain in Light’s’ sway. The vibrant energy of its first half was exhilarating, and perhaps it did serve to open my mind to new worlds of music. Years later, though, I find myself regarding the record with more of an objective respect rather than a subjective embrace. There’s just so much about the record that rubs me wrong now: the way said early tracks blend together (especially “Crosseyed and Painless” and “The Great Curve;” I’ll always find myself snapping to attention during the latter track, wondering what happened to the one before it), the non-entity that is “The Overload,” or how I can never bring myself to like “Seen and Not Seen,” despite it seeming right up my alley. For all these problems, I lay the blame squarely on Eno. While “Fear of Music” retained enough of frontman David Byrne’s influence and deft sense of groove to achieve greatness, ‘Remain in Light’ finds the band slipping further under Eno’s control, to the point where, I’d argue, much of it stops feeling like Talking Heads at all.
This isn’t to put down anyone else’s enjoyment of the record, as I’ll attest there’s plenty to like (don’t be surprised to see “Listening Wind” or “Born Under Punches” in this column sometime down the road). If there’s one thing I will praise ‘Remain in Light’ for, however, it’s the pervading sense of freedom that it imbued upon later Talking Heads records. Their first post-Eno album, ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ is a complete breath of fresh air after all that was going on with ‘Remain in Light,’ and that feeling persisted even on to 1985’s ‘Little Creatures,’ perhaps the single most joyful album of the band’s career. Talking Heads were masterful at embracing the mundanity of modern life for inspiration, and ‘Little Creatures’ is that spirit made incarnate. No song from that album embodies said spirit more, perhaps, than the penultimate track, “Television Man.”
The pre-internet world’s most dominant media outlet had been the subject of Talking Head’s attention before, with the terrific “Found a Job” off their sophomore album, ‘More Songs about Buildings and Food.’ While “Found a Job” celebrated the potential for televised narratives (pretty prescient call there, Byrne), ‘Television Man’ is a bit more jaded on the subject, if only slightly. Where other “people like to put the television down,” Byrne comes to its defense, claiming “Television made me what I am,” characterizing it as a “good friend.” While this doesn’t exactly refute the criticisms of those other people, it does display a certain savvy about the so-called idiot box.
Like it or not, television is an integral part of society now, with most people having lived with it their entire lives. Yes, it may bring the outside world crashing into your living room, but it can also serve as a “beautiful garden” that brings people together and allows us respite from our workaday lives. That’s certainly the spirit of the song, as Tina Weymouth’s cool bass licks pop over a gleeful brass fanfare. It’s almost inevitable that the track would culminate with back and forth cheers; where leisure activities can take on a rather passive air, “Television Man” presents an active engagement with media, turning a simple act into a celebration. Either way, the song itself is fantastic, and “that’s how the story ends.”